The name “Nicaragua” still evokes images of revolution, “contras,” and an ugly little war in America’s backyard in the 1980s. Those days are long gone, although not forgotten. But its history has been turbulent, a long sucession of fights stoked by interests both domestic and foreign.
Although small, poor, and isolated from the rest of the world for most of its existence Nicaragua, like all countries, has its own fascinating history and traditions. It has produced a unique mestizo blend of Amerindian, Afro-caribbean, and European cultures.
The orginal inhabitants were tribes that had come down from Mexico along the Pacific Coast and settled there, as well as other tribes that had moved back up from Venezuela along the Caribbean Coast, thus forming two very distinct sub-groups. The population was, and still is, concentrated between the Pacific Coast and the chain of volcanoes and lakes that runs fifty miles inland. Far from the Mayan and Aztec empires north in Guatemala and Mexico, the Nicaraguan tribes developed their own distinct cultures, based largely on the cultivation and deification of Indian corn.
First subjugated by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, the 16th century Spanish conqueror, Nicaragua languished as an outpost of the Captaincy-General of Guatemala, itself part of the Viceroyalty of Mexico, for the first three centuries of the Conquista. But not before three of the conquistadores, each with a separate authorization from the Spanish Crown, had waged a brutal war for control of the new colony, known as the “War of the Captains.” Soon a local bourgeoisie developed, consisting of Spaniards whose ancestors had arrived from Spain and married local women, themselves often of mixed parentage. Similar to what had happened elsewhere in the Spanish colonial empire, most land once held communally by Indian tribes had been registered in the name of relatively few landowners, referred to as “latifundistas.” The rest of the population, in their majority indigenous or, on the Caribbean Coast, increasingly Afro-Caribbean, were poor. Pitch-poor.
By then, more than a few new legends had appeared as part of the Nicaraguan mestizo folklore. Many of them centered on the poor but clever indigenous or mestizo people being able to outsmart the rich Spaniards. These inclded the famous play, El Güegüense. This is when the “Gigantona” first appeared, as a giant effigy to mock the Spanish overlords and ladies. Here are some examples of fine Nicaraguan folklore: http://marthaisabelarana.typepad.com/blog/legends/
By the time the five provinces (including Nicaragua) making up Central America separated from Mexico, by then independent from Spain, and finally into five independent countries in 1838, their economic, political and social make-up was cemented: latifundia – a few families controlling all the land and resources; republican, with limited voter rights, and two regional parties vying for power; ethnically hierarchical, although much less so than in Guatemala, Peru and Mexico for instance, where large and ethnically “pure” indigenous populations still existed, alongside a thin upper-class of “pure” European bourgeois.
The 19th century brought some European immigrants, lured by the promise of free land – a local attempt at homesteading. Especially Germans from Baden came in relatively large numbers, and soon became part of the dominant class, managing the lucrative coffee plantations, and the banks that were needed for exports. It was also in the 19th century that Willam Walker appeared. Born in Tennessee in 1824, a medical doctor by age 19 and a lawyer two years after that, he got caught up in the race to get people from New York to San Francisco, just when the Gold Rush started and there was no railroad yet linking the two coasts. The fastest way was in fact through… Nicaragua: a boatride from New York City down the Atlantc and into the Caribbean, up the San Juan River into Lake Nicaragua, and after that it was just a short coach ride to reach the Pacific at San Juan del Sur, from where another boat would take travellers up to California.
All of 32 years old, Walker put together a band of maurading mercenaries, adventurers and assorted swindlers, and by exploiting local feuds set himself up as President of Nicaragua in 1856. He quickly re-established slavery, which had been abolished in Nicaragua in 1824, and declared English the official language. Walker was in fact recognized as legitimate president of Nicaragua by President Franklin Pierce, althought his first (and only) ambassador to the US, Parker French, a notorious swindler, was not. Fittingly, Walker ended up dead in front of a firing squad.
Talks of a canal were not dead, and for decades the US Government debated whether to build it in Panama or Nicaragua. When one of the lobbyists for Panama sent a Nicaraguan postage stamp featuring a smoking volcano to each Senator, the decision was quickly made.
The country’s ruling class continued to grow economically, fighting amongst themselves for control of the economic means of production of course. By 1909 the US sent in the Marines, supposedly to keep the country from collapsing under the weight of unabating infighting, but it is safe to say that economic interests were part of the calculation – this was the era of the Rough Riders after all, and the same was happening in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The Marines stayed a bit longer than anticipated, until 1933. By then, the country had stabilized economically, but definitely not politically or socially, as the poor were still as poor and disenfranchised as they had ever been. Also, a goodbye present from the occuypying force came in the form of an even more sinister threat lying ahead: repressive, all-consuming kleptocracy by a single man. Anastasio Somoza and his two sons ruled the country until 1979, making them one of the wealthiest families of Central America. Augusto Sandino, a rebel leader who had set up cooperatives of poor farmers and formed a militia of guerillas, was one of the first victims of the Somoza regime, which in turn spawned the sandinista movement that would eventually unseat the Somozas.
The 70s and 80s saw torture, civil war, hundreds of thousands of displaced people, and continued abuse and concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. When the City of Leon was the first one in the country to be about to fall to the rebels, Somoza ordered it bombarded by his airforce. “Bomb everything that moves until it stops moving,” he famously ordered.
The Sandinista leadership that took over from the Somozas made some laudable efforts to bring education and healthcare to the millions of dispossessed, but in the end agrarian reform alone was not enough to change the game, and the Sandinistas’ insistence on installing a permanent state of revolution in all spheres of life, and stifling dissent, forestalled Nicaragua’s chances of becoming prosperous, democratic, and fair. The civil war being waged by contras – former soldiers of Somoza’s murderous Guardia – further re-directed much-needed resources away from development, and towards the military.
After the corrupt Sandinistas left in 1990, everyone thought that it was time for true democracy, and for the end of poverty perhaps. It was not to be. The old elites, whose gripe with Somoza had always been that he had not left enough of the spoils for them, and in fact had wanted Somocismo without Somoza, came back with a vengeance. Agrarian reform was either rolled back, or expropriated landowners were given extortionate sums of money to compensate for properties lost, in many cases for properties which they had already signed over to Somoza’s corrupt banks before they themselves left the country, money in hand, when the Sandinistas rolled in in 1979.
No more civil war, it is true. But the poor are still poor: today, Nicaragua remains the second-poorest country in the Americas, after Haiti. It is a beautiful country though, and its people are among the friendliest you will find anywhere in the world.